Collagen Supplements: Do They Work?
Collagen is said to help improve skin health, joint health, and even enhance muscle growth... But are these claims true? We break down what the research says for you...
You might have noticed a new protein supplement in town... Collagen. Collagen is the most abundant protein found in the human body, it's specifically found in the skin, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues. Collagen supplements are rising to the top of the list regarding protein supplements people are buying. But what's making everyone buy them? What are they used for? And do they actually work? We're diving deep into the world of collagen and answering all these important questions for you, so you can decide if they're worth your money or not!
What's the reason for taking collagen supplements?
The main reason collagen supplementation blew up in popularity comes down to improving skin elasticity. As mentioned earlier, collagen represents a family of proteins found in various parts of the body and helps to provide most of our connective tissues structural components, which includes the skin. Our skin is made up of 75% collagen, but collagen levels begin to decline after the age of 25 at a rate of 1.5% a year. Since it's responsible for the firmness of your skin, once those levels start to fall, the skin will gradually become less "plump". This can lead to common visible effects of aging like wrinkles, fine lines, and dry skin. But that's only one reason why collagen supplements have increased in popularity... Collagen is also responsible for holding your ligaments, joints, and bones together.
Collagen is formed by assembling collagen fibrils from three amino acids – proline, glycine, and hydroxyproline. These fibrils are what give collagen its cable-like structure that is comprised of several smaller bundles of protein that are bundled together, and this is what gives it its physical properties relating to keeping the skin tight and youthful, but also your joints, bones, and muscles in good, strong shape.
So, the idea behind collagen supplementation is that it can boost the body's collagen production which results in anti-aging benefits, and improvements in the joints and muscles.
Types of collagen supplements
There are 28 types of collagen in the body, but types I, II, and III are the most abundant in the human body, making up between 80-90%. Type II is found in the joints, and types I and III are found in the skin and bones. Collagen supplements are sourced from animals and contain these three types or a mixture of the three.
Other forms of collagen that you may see on the labels of collagen supplements are:
- Collagen Hydrolysate – Also known as collagen peptides, is broken down into smaller amino acids.
- Gelatin – This type is only partially broken down into amino acids.
- Raw – The collagen protein remains intact in its raw form.
All forms are broken down into amino acids during the digestion process to be absorbed and used to produce more collagen or other proteins needed by your body. Collagen supplements typically come in a powder form or a pill for easy digestion. The question is... Do they actually work?
Do collagen supplements work?
In order to answer this question, let's break down the potential benefits of collagen supplements, and whether the studies prove or disprove the claims.
Improves skin health
One of the main claims of collagen supplements is that they can help improve skin elasticity, hydration, and have overall anti-aging effects. However, the studies and research on this are mixed. In fact, most of the studies were funded by collagen supplements brands themselves... So take the results with a grain of salt.
One particular study looked at a group of 114 middle-aged women who took 2.5 grams of hydrolyzed collagen (type I) every day for 8 weeks. The study found that the women experienced improved skin elasticity and a reduced wrinkle volume by 20%.  Another study conducted on middle-aged women produced similar results. The 72 women were taking 2.5 grams of a brand of hydrolyzed collagen but with a mixture of types I and II. They took it daily for 12 weeks and it resulted in increased skin hydration by 28% and reduced wrinkle depth by 27%. 
There's also a comprehensive review of ingesting collagen supplements that was published in the Journal of Drugs in Dermatology. This review included randomized, placebo-controlled trials using collagen in humans. This just means that the researchers did not know whether the subjects were consuming a placebo or a collagen supplement (specifically collagen hydrolysate and collagen peptides). This was a total of 11 studies, looking at roughly 800 patients. The results? They were mixed! Some studies show no significant improvement, but others showed improved hydration from oral collagen supplements.
There is one good indicator that collagen may help... When collagen is ingested, our stomach acid breaks it down and converts it to proline-hydroxyproline. This particular amino acid is known to help increase the hyaluronic acid content in the skin, giving it a more hydrated appearance. But when it comes down to research – for every study that supports collagen supplements and their skin benefits, there's another contradicting it.
Improves joint health
As we know now, type II collagen is found in cartilage which is the protective cushioning between the joints. This is why some believe that a health benefit of taking a collagen supplement can help reduce joint pain and improve joint health.
There are two particular studies that look at people with a condition known as osteoarthritis (OA). This condition leads to inflammation, stiffness, and pain due to the cartilage between joints wearing away. One study had individuals take 40 mg of UC-II (a brand of raw type II collagen) daily for up to six months. The results showed that the individuals with OA had reduced joint pain and stiffness.  Another study had individuals with OA take 2 grams of BioCell (a brand of hydrolyzed type II collagen) daily for 10 weeks. The individuals reported reduced scores of joint pain and stiffness.  The catch is that the manufactures of the collagen supplements given to the individuals actually funded and helped conduct their respective studies! Again, these studies should be taken lightly.
However, there are a few placebo-controlled studies that show collagen supplements help with arthritis pain and sports-related joint pain.  A longer-term clinical trial is needed to conclude that collagen products do help improve joint health, but for now, the research is mixed.
Helps build muscle
As we know, all protein sources are known to support muscle growth, especially when combined with strength training. Collagen supplements make for an excellent protein source, packing in more protein per calorie than other sources while containing less sodium and sugar. This is why you may have seen an increase in Collagen Protein Powders in the fitness market. But does taking collagen actually help support your muscle-building efforts? Let's take a look at the research...
A recent study conducted on 53 elderly men with sarcopenia (refers to loss of muscle caused by aging) found that those who took 15 grams of collagen daily, in addition to weight training three times a week, gained more muscle than those who didn't take collagen but lifted weights.  Another study conducted on 77 premenopausal women showed that collagen supplements had similar muscle-building effects when compared with a non-protein post-workout dietary supplement. 
These studies simply suggest that collagen supplements may work better than no protein post-workout. However, it doesn't conclude that their supplements are superior to other sources of protein for better muscle growth.
Bottom line is, there isn't conclusive evidence that shows collagen supplements provide the health benefits they claim. There are only a handful of studies, and the results are mixed. Most benefits tend to come from anecdotal claims which are often unreliable.
How to increase collagen production
If collagen is something you still want to try out for either its skin-related benefits or its joint and muscle-building benefits then give these supplements a shot! Just remember, it's not a quick solution to better skin and muscle growth. It takes time to see a difference, stick with it for a minimum of 30 days to see a difference.
So, how much collagen do you need and which is the best type to take?
Based on research, here's how to increase collagen production for:
- Skin health: 2.5 grams of hydrolyzed collagen type I, or a mixture of types I and II.
- Joint pain: 40 mg of raw type II collagen or 2 grams of hydrolyzed type-II collagen.
- Muscle-building: 15 grams of any collagen protein taken post-workout.
It's said collagen powders mixed with water or any liquid beverage is better than taking a tablet due to it having a higher absorption rate.
Now, are they safe?
The good news is that collagen supplements are generally safe for most people. Mild side effects have been reported, but they're mostly related to digestive issues like nausea, upset stomach, and heartburn.
In summary, evidence surrounding collagen supplements is conflicting, but they are safe to consume if anyone wishes to do so. Taking a collagen supplement might not result in drastic changes to your skin or muscles, but you'll still be consuming other good vitamins and minerals, so it won't hurt if you want to give it a try! But as with any dietary supplement, consult with your doctor or dermatologist before purchasing any to ensure it's completely safe for you.